Nintendo aren’t pulling any punches with their early attempts at mobile gaming. Certainly Miitomo was a curiosity, but Super Mario Run is Nintendo playing brilliantly to the strengths of the platform, just as they do time and again when creating games for their own hardware. Of course, nothing’s going to change the stock Mario game story, and Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser for the umpteenth time.
Controlling Mario is stripped all the way down to simple short and long taps as he automatically runs from left to right. There’s only so much that you can do with tapping the screen, so Mario’s picked up a bunch of new moves to help ease the transition. He’ll now vault over low objects and certain enemies, a second tap while he’s in midair will see him spin and stay airborne for just that little bit longer, he can grab onto ledges and pull himself up, and so on.
It’s perhaps the most rhythmic Mario game yet because so many actions can be punctuated with a tap. Tapping while Mario’s hurdling a Goomba sees him turn this move into a jump, you can flip out of grabbing onto a ledge and more.
There’s only 24 levels, but you’re not done with them just by getting to the finish flag. You’re invited to head back and replay each level in order to find and collect all five pink coins in a single run, which unlocks a slight variation of the level with five more difficult to reach purple coins, and finally a version with black coins. Some of the levels are utterly devilish, especially the Boo houses, where these coloured coins are so often hidden from view, sometimes even within a Boo.
Completing each set of four levels unlocks them as potential locations for the Toad Rally game mode, and that mode feels like it leans much closer to the endless runners that have been so popular on mobile, as you can spot repeating chunks of the level its based on if you go far enough.
Toad Rally pits you against another player’s online score and ghost, tasking you with earning as many coins as possible and doing so with style and flair to earn the favour of the Toads watching you – this has been the deciding factor on one or two occasions. Beat the score and you get more Toads of various colours to join your Kingdom, but fail to do so and you can actually lose some.
It’s hardly the end of the world, but it is a bit off-putting to lose up to 30 Toads, especially when you made a mistake early on in a race. That sets you back in trying to unlock new buildings and decorations for the Kingdom Builder – the third side to game – and it can be a bit annoying to be handed a selection of players with vast numbers of Toads, indicating that they’re a damned sight better at the game than you are. Thankfully there’s plenty of Nintendo bots to play against that make grabbing more Toads almost insultingly easy, and as more people play the game, the matches to similarly skilled players will certainly improve.
The Kingdom Builder is largely cosmetic, gradually growing and letting you add houses for the Toads, decorative items, and restoring the castle to its former glory as more Toads are won in the Toad Rally. There are one or two more meaningful additions here, though. For one thing, minigame houses can be played every six hours and give you a change to earn some more coins and tickets, but you can also unlock extra characters to play as. Whether it’s Luigi, Yoshi, or whoever, they change relatively little about the game, aside from potentially having a slightly different jump. Where Mario can do a midair spin, Yoshi can flutter his feet and keep his height just that little bit longer.
What’s fascinating about this is just how easily Nintendo have been able to dress up their primary franchise in mobile game clothing. The graphics are pleasingly colourful, adopting the New Super Mario Bros. visual style, all the music and sounds are there, but Super Mario Run feels like a free to play game. It’s not, of course, but it feels like it is, from the big shiny buttons that are almost iOS 6.0 levels of kitsch to the in-game currencies and gameplay loops that take you between the three sides of the game. From a certain perspective it just feels a little bit off, in particular having to earn Toad Rally tickets in order to play that mode. It’s not hard to do, but it is unusual.
The thing is, that’s all in my head; this isn’t free to play, but trial and unlock. Download the game for free and you can play the first three levels of the World Tour, and 20 seconds of the fourth, earn Toad Rally tickets to go up against other people, bringing red Toads to your kingdom and letting you buy and place a handful of the possible buildings. There’s no limit to how much you can play that, but the vast majority of the game is locked behind a £7.99/$9.99 fee. It’s pricey in the context of current mobile gaming trends, but something I’m very much in favour of.
Less easy to appreciate is the need to be online to play any part of the game, which feels almost like a punishment for those that pay – we’ll have to wait and see how effectively it prevents piracy. Toad Rally obviously needs to be online in order to pull other players’ scores and runs from the servers, but there’s little tangible need to have Kingdom Builder online and the World Tour is pure single player, albeit with your friends’ high scores if you add them in game. If you’re playing at home or on your phone, it won’t really get in the way, but when your train goes through a tunnel just as you’re trying to load up a World Tour, it’s frustrating.
There are a few oddities, like the online play requirement, and it would be nice to know if and when Nintendo plan to add more levels to the game, but Super Mario Run is a fantastic mobile debut for Nintendo’s most enduring and best known character.